Opinion: Should we make all people Christians? – Reflecting on Zizek, Bosch and Anabaptism

Written by Cobus van Wyngaard

In Violence Žižek points to some questions which again got me thinking about the always persistent notions in Christianity that we have a task to convert the whole of society to Christ, meaning that all should become part of the church. He writes:

What if such an exclusion of some form of otherness from the scope of our ethical concerns is consubstantial with the very founding gesture of ethical universality, so that the more universal our explicit ethics is, the more brutal the underlying exclusion is? What the Christian all-inclusive attitude (recall St. Paul’s famous “there are no men or women, no Jews and Greeks”) involves is a thorough exclusion of those who do not accept inclusion into the Christian community. In other “particularistic” religions, there is a place for others: they are tolerated, even if they are looked upon with condescension. The Christian motto ”All men are brothers,” however, also means that those who do not accept brotherhood are not men.

My reflection at this stage does not concern the questions whether this is a legitimate interpretation of Paul, but rather the quote serves to open up questions concerning evangelical universalism.

A distinctive marker of Christianity is the way in which it created categories for interpreting the act of entering into the faith community which opened up this faith community to all, regardless of culture or background. Obviously Paul’s thoughts were important in this process. I usually describe this to my confirmation classes by saying that the crime that the followers of Jesus, those called Christians, committed against the Jews was to open up the Jewish faith to everyone – they made it too easy to become a Jew. Gone where the days of circumcision, which made it literally painful to become a member once you were an adult (and obviously opened up possibilities for woman to become part of the faith community).

Again similar categories were created within the protestant Reformation, sola gratia, sola fidei (through grace only, through faith only). But again the critique from Žižek is applicable, because if membership is sola gratia, but the sola fidei is still a prerequisite, it puts a question mark either on the choice of faith, or on the non-believer. Either you don’t have a choice (through grace only), or else you’re choice against that, an option that is assumed is open to everyone, opens possibilities for the most brutal forms of exclusion (and the history of the church is ample examples of this).

However, these are not the only interpretations possible. In an article titled How my mind has changed. Mission and the alternative community*, David Bosch describes his own project from the years 1972-1982:

What I have attempted to do— not very successfully, I am afraid, judging by the reaction, particularly in the Afrikaans Reformed Churches! — was to build on and develop further the intrinsic similarities that I believe exist between Reformed and Anabaptist ecclesiologies.

He unpacks this by explaining that

The more identifiably separate and unique the church is as a community of believers (Anabaptism) the greater significance it has for the world (Calvinism).

Whether this is what Bosch intended or not, I’m not yet completely sure about, but on a very simplistic level this assumes that church and world can never become the same, that the church should always be but a part of a broader community, and not identifiable as the community**, always smaller than the community, smaller than the world. The experimental garden. The place where things are possible which would not be considered in the world.

How then is this significance for the world to manifest when this community is truly unique?

I suggest that we need a deeper exploration of the idea of public dialogue.

If our own place is understood as part of a broader dialogue, and our contribution to the world and transformation of the world (mission) is found in our uniqueness, it opens up possibilities that this world can contain a place for others. Exactly as a Christian, I can create an openness which recognize the voices of others within this public dialogue, contributing to the positive evolution of society. However, I do this only from a position of faith, of a firm conviction that also the way of the church, in its uniqueness, has significance for the world.

Maybe, in this post-secular world, this could even be done without condescension. Not only could we recognize that certain distinctly different worldviews are siblings of our own (be it the monotheistic faiths, or secularism), but the growing recognition of the important role which for example eastern religions need to play in our time (think of conversations on ecology) also open up the idea of a dialogue where the other need not be defeated, but where uniquely different views are needed in the ongoing dialogue concerning what Christians would call the kingdom of God (that which is the dream of how things could be in this world).

And the church then? Well, we would need to discover and live our distinctness as the community which over the past 2000 years reflected on the tradition which grew out of the life and words of Jesus. For the sake of society we need to contribute from our uniqueness as church.

* Bosch, D. J. 1982. “How my mind has changed: Mission and the alternative community”, in Journal of Theology for Southern Africa. 41 (December), pp. 6–10.

** My guess is that chapter 13 of Transforming Mission, and the 1993 chapter in The Good News of the Kingdom: MissionTheology in the Third Millennium titled God’s Reign and the Rulers of this World both open up the possibility that different church traditions might be appropriate at different times and places. This might open up the possibility of interpreting Bosch in such a way that at times a complete identification between church and community is possible, but as a rule I believe you don’t find this idea in Bosch.